The United Nations’ (UN) Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has announced that its Food Price Index rose by 12.6% in March compared with the previous month.

Global food prices have soared largely due to the conflict in Ukraine, according to the 8 April FAO report, with prices for cereals and vegetable oils at record highs.

Taken together, Russia and Ukraine accounted for around 30% and 20% of global wheat and maize exports, respectively, over the last three years, the FAO said.

World wheat prices soared by 19.7% during March, while maize prices increased 19.1% month-on-month, hitting a record high along with those of barley and sorghum.

The FAO said its Vegetable Oil Price Index rose by 23.2%, driven by higher prices of sunflowerseed oil, of which Ukraine is the world’s top exporter.

Prices for palm, soyabean and rapeseed oil also increased sharply due to higher sunflowerseed oil prices and rising crude oil prices, the FAO said, with soyabean oil prices impacted by concerns over reduced South American exports.

The FAO Index tracks international prices of a basket of commonly-traded commodities. The latest level of the index was 33.6% higher than last March.

Despite the backdrop of surging prices for grains and oils, the FAO director-general Qu Dongyu said with the right policies, the world could still contain the impact on global food security.

In an address to the 169th session of FAO’s Council on 11 April to discuss the impact of the conflict on global food supply, Qu said the war in Ukraine would impact consumers across the world as the resulting increases in the prices of food, energy and fertilisers would put the next global harvests at risk.

“Prices for staple foodstuffs such as wheat and vegetable oils have been soaring lately, imposing extraordinary costs on global consumers, particularly the poorest,” Qu said.

However, a global food crisis on the scale seen in 2008 can still be averted, according to Qu, who emphasised the importance of keeping worldwide supply chains functioning.

It was important to avoid repeating the mistakes made in 2008, Qu said, when “counter-productive policies” on trade were imposed.

“The major difference from 2008 is that today we are facing the big risk that our planting season for next year will be drastically affected – in 2008 the shock was due to a drought and did not put at risk the next planting season,” he said. “We must not shut down our global trade system and exports should not be restricted or taxed.”

Other FAO proposals to combat the crisis included the implementation of soil maps to support the most vulnerable countries to use their fertilisers efficiently and the introduction of well-targeted social protection plans.